American Prairie is a donor-funded nonprofit organization with the mission of conserving the temperate grassland ecosystem by connecting and restoring enough land to support the natural ecological processes. Our strategy to achieve landscape-scale results is to add to and complement existing swaths of public land that have already been set aside for conservation. We act as stewards for the prairie’s biodiversity, we foster relationships with public and private stakeholders, and we create opportunities for the public to explore the region’s splendor. The entire project (the organization, the land we own, and the 3.2-million-acre vision) is referred to as “American Prairie,” but the end result will be a multi-jurisdictional complex made up of public and private land.
Research and studies conducted by conservation biologists have determined that a mixed-grass prairie would need to be approximately 3.2 million acres (5,000 square miles) in size in order to be a fully functioning ecosystem complete with migration corridors, native wildlife, and natural processes. American Prairie will purchase approximately 700,000 acres of private lands that will stitch together millions of acres of existing public lands. Using the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge as an anchor, the result will be a 3.2-million-acre prairie– 5,000 square miles of continuous land area roughly the size of Connecticut.
The Great Plains is one of four places on the planet with the potential of landscape-scale conservation of one of the fastest disappearing and least protected biomes on Earth– temperate grasslands. The northeast region of Montana is part of the Great Plains, and has several unique characteristics that make it an ideal location for American Prairie. First, there are unusually large tracts of public land in the region, which makes the public/private land model achievable. Second, northeastern Montana holds one of the largest areas of intact prairie in the country, and intact prairie is far easier to restore than plowed land. Third, numerous scientific studies have identified this region as having some of the greatest plant and animal diversity anywhere in the Great Plains. Most animal species that existed here two hundred years ago are still here, although in reduced numbers, and the region is known for its diversity of prairie birds.
American Prairie purchases private land in the region using donated funds from supporters. Purchase price decisions are informed by market studies and appraisals, and we pay property taxes on all lands owned by the organization. Properties are chosen based on a number of criteria, including habitat and wildlife diversity. When working with local sellers, our intent is to be as flexible as possible in order to meet the unique circumstances that each landowner may face, and we utilize different tools depending on the specific situation. These include, but are not limited to, livestock leases and contract purchase, exchanges, tax and estate planning tools, and other approaches that may benefit the seller.
American Prairie intends to hold title to its private lands in perpetuity. Private land ownership affords quicker decision-making opportunities when compared to public management. We also can focus land management decisions on the priorities most beneficial to ecosystem restoration and public enjoyment. Additionally, as a donor-driven organization, we are not reliant upon government action for funding.
Owning land is the most effective way to advance our mission. As a landowner, we are able to welcome the public to our properties while also implementing management practices that align with our organizational goals and initiatives. A conservation easement is a legal agreement that limits the uses that can occur on a property. The main motivation for this is to ensure the long-term protection of grassland habitat by prohibiting plowing of native prairie, development, fragmentation, and other activities that alter wildlife habitat. Some conservation easements ensure public access, but not all. Our mission is to conserve the land in perpetuity and open the land to the public. Because our mission aligns with the intent of conservation easements, they aren’t always necessary.
Management of the eventual 3.2-million-acre land complex will be conducted by the various entities with land ownership and wildlife management authority including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Montana Department of State Lands, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and American Prairie. We think owning our lands and cooperatively managing the habitat with these agencies will create a unique system of accountability and checks and balances.
Science & Wildlife FAQs
We hope to be a catalyst in the effort to successfully restore ecologically meaningful populations of prairie wildlife. American Prairie’s vision is to fully restore the shortgrass prairie ecosystem in an identified region of Montana’s Northern Great Plains. As such, the American Prairie Ecosystem will contain ecologically meaningful populations of all non-extinct, native species present in the reference ecosystem (i.e., the Upper Missouri River ecosystem, circa 1800), with management focused on maximizing the integrity, complexity, and resilience of the system.
American Prairie has no jurisdiction over any wildlife, nor does any private organization, and there are very few direct actions we can take in regard to wildlife. Under the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, wildlife is held as a public trust and managed by state (Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks) or federal (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) agencies. Interestingly, in the state of Montana, bison are legally classified as both wildlife and livestock giving American Prairie the authority to own and manage the herd as any other domestic livestock. As a private landowner, we do have the ability to take collaborative or direct action to improve habitat, which indirectly helps to grow and attract wildlife. We can also manage access in a way that minimizes degradation of the habitat or its wildlife populations, while still welcoming the public to come and enjoy the prairie. However, in a modern context, how much wildlife exists, and where, often hinges on individual and community tolerance for wildlife. American Prairie is committed to increasing the “social carrying capacity” for wildlife in the region by incentivizing landowners who tolerate abundant wildlife (see Wild Sky), mitigating human-wildlife conflict, and promoting the tangible and intangible benefits of thriving wildlife populations and wilder spaces. Ultimately, wildlife are managed for the benefit of all of us, and they will thrive and proliferate to the extent that the trust beneficiaries of wildlife demand it.
We do not have the authority to reintroduce any species to the area, even if those species were historically present. Species reintroduction falls under the jurisdiction of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and/or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and any decisions regarding the reintroduction of wolves or grizzlies in the region will need to be made by these agencies augmented by the will of the general public.
The overarching goal of American Prairie is to restore and conserve the species, habitats, and ecological processes that are integral to this region, and were largely intact as little as 200 years ago. To guide our management and restoration philosophy, we worked with experts to develop the Freese Scale for Grassland Restoration (named in honor of co-creator and founding American Prairie scientist, Curt Freese), which attempts to define and categorize the transition of grasslands from commodity production to biodiversity management . Categories include a range of ecosystem features like plant diversity, grazing, fire, hydrology, and predation. You can download the complete background summary on the Reports page, and additional information on the scale is available on the Reserve Management page.
Commercial flights are available to Bozeman (BZN), Billings (BIL), and Great Falls (GTF). Your drive time from the airport to American Prairie depends on the airport and region of the prairie you will visit. In general, visitors should plan on a half- to a full-day’s drive to reach their destination from these airport hubs. American Prairie is located in one of the most remote regions in the lower 48 states. Travel requires careful planning. Road travel on the prairie is almost exclusively on gravel and unimproved dirt roads, necessitating high-clearance (at least 8 inches), 4WD or AWD vehicles, and a reliable spare tire.
American Prairie does not have fuel or grocery facilities, emergency care services, or “ranger” type employees. We encourage visitors to plan for supply stops in nearby Gateway Communities like Lewistown, Zortman, Harlem, Malta, and Glasgow. Plan to arrive with a full tank of fuel and enough potable water for your stay. Remember that emergency services could be more than an hour away from your location.
Aside from the National Discovery Center in Lewistown, our primary visitor facilities are located on our PN, Mars Vista, and Sun Prairie properties. Mars Vista is our most accessible property. It is located directly off of the highway and can be reached via 2WD vehicle. Mars Vista has a two-mile nature trail with a series of interpretive signs and views of the Missouri Breaks, open prairie, and Little Rockies mountains. Overnight visitors can American Prairie campsites or cabins at the Antelope Creek Campground.
For those looking to journey a little further off the pavement, we recommend the PN property near Judith Landing. This property is accessed via 30 miles of gravel and unimproved roads that may become impassable when wet and requires a 4WD/AWD vehicle. Day visitors can access the Judith and Missouri rivers as well as miles of two-track roads for biking, hiking, or horseback riding. Overnight visitors can reserve one of the Myers Family Huts.
For those looking to get far from the beaten track, we recommend a trip to Sun Prairie. Sun Prairie is ideally visited as an overnight at Buffalo Camp, which is reached via over 50 miles of gravel and unimproved roads that may become impassable when wet. The property is home to a resident bison herd and has many miles of two-track roads for biking, hiking, or horseback riding.
The vast majority of American Prairie is open year-round for the public to visit and explore without permission. We also welcome the public to cross our deeded land to access adjacent public land. Please follow posted signs regarding road status; some roads are open to non-motorized travel or ranch traffic only. Foot and horse traffic are allowed off-road. Motorized use and bikes are restricted to existing roads. Hunting on American Prairie lands requires signing up through the Block Management Program, and detailed information for each property is included on our hunting page.
Weather on the prairie is unpredictable, and it is the visitor’s responsibility to monitor the weather before and during their trip. Please visit our Road and Weather Conditions page for more information.
May and June are the best months to see wildflowers. Wildlife can be viewed any time of year on the prairie, but spring, summer, and fall generally provide the best viewing opportunities.
American Prairie includes occupied bear habitat, and rattlesnakes are present throughout the prairie. We encourage visitors to take the proper safety precautions to ensure their safety and the safety of the prairie’s wildlife.
We allow the public to take deer and elk antler sheds, but we limit the amount to two sheds per day. We allow foraging for fruit, mushrooms and plants for personal use only. No commercial collection of natural items is allowed. The collection of bison bones or skulls is not allowed as they play an important role in nutrient cycling.
American Prairie does not allow the collection of human artifacts like arrowheads or other cultural items at homestead sites or other historic sites. No cutting or collection of firewood is allowed.
Dogs are welcome! Dogs must be under voice control (or on a leash) and may not be left outside unattended. Please keep pets close at all times during your visit to prevent them from chasing, disturbing, or harming wildlife. Note that rattlesnakes may be encountered anywhere on American Prairie and may pose a danger to pets.
Visitors driving EV’s should note that dedicated charging infrastructure remains sparse or non-existent in the region. Visitors may book an RV site at the nightly rate to use 30/50A power (bring necessary adaptors) for charging. 4WD/AWD vehicles with at least 8″ of clearance are recommended for travel to Buffalo Camp.
Regional Economy FAQs
Yes. American Prairie pays real estate property taxes on all of the land owned by the organization. American Prairie may be eligible for an exemption for a small portion of our property acres (up to 160 acres), we choose to fully pay all property taxes. American Prairie also pays taxes on personal property, including our bison.
Our analysis of real estate trends shows that American Prairie’s presence has had no effect on the regional market. Property prices increase and decrease based on variables that fluctuate, including: regional and national economic conditions, regional and national demand, property productivity, and cattle and grain prices. In compliance with industry standards and best practices, all American Prairie land acquisitions are advised by independent professional appraisals.
Ranchers may sell their land for a variety of reasons, such as a desire to purchase new grazing pastures, a need to consolidate their herds, or a decision to move their cattle operation to another part of Montana or out of state. People are often surprised to learn that most sellers with whom American Prairie has done business with are still in the ranching business and the vast majority of them still reside in the local area. Like any neighborhood, land ownership in the region is constantly shifting. Many of the properties we’ve purchased have been bought and sold three or four times in the past two decades.
We expect over time that the assembly of American Prairie will significantly increase expenditures on outdoor recreation, education programs, and science research in the region. This will result in an influx of revenues for motels, restaurants, caterers, sporting goods stores, gas stations, outfitters, and others who service these visitors and programs. As demonstrated elsewhere in the American West and many other places around the world, restoration of large natural areas and the resulting recreational opportunities help local communities attract and retain people, from retirees to young business professionals and entrepreneurs.
American Prairie prioritizes spending locally, and is already contributing significantly to the regional economy through its daily operations. We have spent more than $30 million (and counting) in the seven-county region where American Prairie owns property. Spending includes land purchases, wages paid to local staff, tourism activities, equipment and supply purchases, payments to local contractors, and real estate taxes. We also provide economic benefits through programs like Wild Sky, which is designed to compensate ranches that use wildlife-friendly practices.